A successful Japanese eatery from Sydney tries its luck in Southbank
Saké is Sydney chef Shaun Presland’s contemporary Japanese restaurant where teriyaki burger balls and sake bombs rule. It’s the second restaurant to open at Hamer Hall, and while you may recall us raving about neighbouring Trocadero’s not-Southbank vibe, Saké doesn’t acquit itself of the tourist strip stigma quite as well.
Designed by the good folks at Luchetti Krelle, whose handiwork graces Momofuku Seiobo in Sydney, it’s a harmony of polished concrete and red and honey-hued woods, draped with stretches of embroidered kimono fabrics and lit in part by a cherry tree blooming with fairy light blossoms. Sitting inside, or out on the terrace, you’ve got a view of the river, and though we’re not quite on board with a PRs description of that milky stretch as “breathtaking”, darkness and city lights make excellent concealer.
Presland’s brand of Japanese, being executed by chef Rose Ang (ex-Nobu), falls at the fun and flashy end of the spectrum. Tender prawn 'dumplings' are wrapped in a tangle of rice noodles rather than wrappers, while wafer-thin slices of translucent kingfish are amped up with fine rounds of jalapeño pepper and a strong punch of soy and yuzu juice – that fragrant, sour Japanese citrus fruit. A tiny pair of Jap-Mex crisp tacos come filled separately with minced salmon and tuna, napped with fresh tomato salsa, and paired with sugar-rimmed shots of saké – fun, although the delicate fish flavours are outmatched.
We’re expecting more of a sharp counterpoint to complement the mellow fattiness of raw minced wagyu beef tartare with its rich, almost truffle-edged fried egg purée. Try the buta no kakuni if you’re set on land beasts. Soft braised pork belly bathes in a delicate miso broth with a fudgy, slow-poached egg, daikon and notes of truffle oil. It’s tasty stuff, but fresh fish is what this joint does best. Bright hand rolls filled with sweet scallops, or crisp-fried soft-shell crab; perfect nigiri topped with fatty salmon belly, or a stunning sashimi set of snapper, tuna and scampi cut with razor-sharp precision and laid out across rough-hewn boulders of ice.
Drinking here is also a worthy proposition. Shochu (rice, barley or sweet potato spirit) and sake are obviously front and centre. You can do some pretty swift damage by putting them together in a Japanese martini; more so if you set about downing a few of those sake bombs (beer and a shot). With a few bar snacks for ballast like the salt-flecked edamame and crunchy karaage fried chicken, you’re sitting pretty.
After a month of service, we’re surprised to find wait staff unable to explain food beyond reciting menu descriptions. Saké ain’t cheap, and they need a stronger hand guiding the floor to justify dropping the cash on the experience. But there are some fun dishes and decent drinks to be had here. If you’re headed for Hamer, it's not a bad option.